In 2012, I will get on the case.
I haven't worked in the wine trade since 1998 when I began writing about the subject for the Boston Globe, but I learned lessons during my time in a wine shop that continue to color my take on wine buying.
Everyone on the staff at the big, busy place where I labored knew well that the customer buying one or two bottles at a time was going to be the most challenging to deal with and difficult to please. The one-bottle-at-a-time type was almost invariably a casual wine drinker with scant knowledge, little experience, and - this is the strange part - equally nervous about making a mistake and taking your word for anything. By contrast, the people we loved to wait on - the knowledgeable, confident types - habitually made their purchases in case lots.
Ah," you're thinking, "it's fear and inexperience that underlies the by-the-bottle approach." Not at all. To understand the phenomenon turn the reasoning it on its head. Ignorance, inexperience, and anxiety are outcomes of bad buying habits, not their causes. Buying a bottle at a time is one of those bad habits. Here's why.
- You can't build on it. Buying one bottle at a time implies drinking one bottle at a time, and drinking one bottle at a time means tasting wine within what G.W.S. Trow famously described as the context of no context. It almost guarantees that you will never be able to organize these separate experiences into a coherent base of information that can eventually mature into a reliable fund of knowledge and good judgment.
- It's inherently risky. Buying a bottle of wine for dinner in with another couple tonight? Good for you. But what if it doesn't meet expectations, clashes with the food, or (worse case) turns out to be frightfully corked? The one-bottle-at-a-time approach means you're always operating with no backup and no plan B.
- It's rather boring. A great part of the pleasure of wine drinking comes in exploring its myriad variations and the ways it plays with food. With no more than one or two bottles on hand you'll never be in a position to just start pulling corks, compare performance, and engage in a lively and entertaining conversation on the relative merits of this one and that.
- It gets you no respect. My experience in the wine shop is pretty typical, I think, of how staff people view the buyer of the odd bottle. It certainly doesn't imply that you'll be treated badly, but I guarantee that
as a casual one-offer you won't get a high level of consideration and attention - and it's a cinch you'll never get a shot at their pet wines. They're saving those for you-know-whom.
- It's far more expensive. Discounts of ten percent are routine when buying by the case and fifteen and twenty percent are not unheard-of. You'll generally pay least when buying a solid, intact case (12 750ml bottles delivered to you just as it came from the winery); a little more if you're asking for a mixed case (12 bottles of varied provenance that has to be assembled and packed up). Pocket what you save or, better idea, use it to drink a little more richly. If you're use to paying $12 per bottle, use your case discount to get a $15 wine for the same outlay. Will you notice the difference in quality? You bet.